Planet Earth

The many Americas

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 20, 2012 10:25 AM


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One of my main hobbyhorses is that in the United States today the identities of race and religion get so much emphasis that it is easy forget the divisions among white Anglo-Protestants which persist, and to some extent serve as the scaffold for the rest of American culture. This is why I recommend Albion's Seed and The Cousins' Wars to anyone interested in American history. Often these realities of American "dark ethnicity," the divisions between Yankees and Low Country Southerners, Scots-Irish and the people of the port cities of the Northeast, get conflated with issues of class. Class is a major dimension, but it is not the only one. For example, the people of Appalachia are poor, but they are not Appalachians because they are poor. These issues of dark ethnicity rooted in "dark history" can crop up in the strangest places. For example, in The New York Times Magazine, Greg Ousley Is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?:

Greg remembers his early childhood being a content one — long afternoons spent tramping through the surrounding woods with his friends, family vacations to the Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan and to visit the extended Ousley clan back in Kentucky. It was neither a materially deprived existence nor a physically abusive one. Like most other kids growing up in rural Indiana, Greg got the occasional spanking, administered by his father, but rarely anything more severe than that. Yet even at a young age, he was aware of the profoundly circumscribed orbit in which his family moved. Sociologists have long noted a tendency among many of the Appalachian transplants to the Midwest to remain separate from the larger community. The Ousleys appear to have been an extreme example of this, rarely socializing with anyone other than three sets of relatives, all first cousins of Jobie’s, and all of whom lived nearby. If easy and familiar in some ways, such tight social compacts can lead to a kind of pressure-cooker environment in times of family discord, and by the late 1980s, the Ousleys were living in constant discord.

I first became aware of this subculture due to a news story last fall about a high school in Cleveland where most of the students were drawn from these Appalachian families. Almost no one from the high school went to college, and administrators were trying to change attitudes about higher education. As someone who takes an interest in regional subcultures I was surprised to find out about this group. Though I was aware of long term Scots-Irish migration to Midwestern cities (the outriders of the "Butternuts"), I was still surprised to find out that these sorts of communities still persisted in a culturally distinct fashion in the north. You can find more in High Mountains Rising.

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